The last decade was the worst on record for economic losses from natural disasters, according to research by Aon. Losses amounted to two trillion dollars, over a trillion more than the previous decade, and disasters claimed an average of 60,000 lives each year. The Asia-Pacific region was the worst-hit and accounted for 44 percent of the total, with earthquakes, tsunamis and tropical cyclones among the disasters the area faced. Natural disasters have a huge impact on communications, especially as mission critical connectivity is so vital in the aftermath of a devastating event. Communication systems, such as wireless phones, mobile towers, wired and wireless internet and cable TV are often out of bounds, causing a delayed recovery for the region or nation, and its residents.

As natural disasters and extreme weather events increase in frequency, and with it soon to be the hurricane season in North and South America, it is crucial that governments quickly implement reliable, high quality connectivity in times of destruction. As a result, satellite technology must be utilised to increase the safety and efficiency in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The quick restoral of connectivity helps aid groups and governments to act smarter, and quickly send first responders to the places that urgently require support.

In the eye of the storm

At the end of last year, the islands of Providencia and San Andrés in Columbia were devastated by Hurricane Iota, with 98 percent of housing destroyed and communities displaced. A category-five storm by the time it made landfall, Iota devastated areas of Colombia, Nicaragua and Honduras, all of which had already been affected by another hurricane two weeks earlier. Due to the nature of the storm, it was critical that the Colombian government had a quick way of getting communications back up and running to begin the recovery process. For two remote islands, this was not going to be an easy task. But when Colombia’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies (MinTIC) selected a satellite connectivity solution to be implemented, the project of re-connecting the islands could begin.

A total of 30 sites across the islands had two VSAT antennas and a Wi-Fi hotspot installed to enable high-bandwidth connectivity, while satellite phones and Broadband Global Area Network terminals were provided to government officials inspecting the damage and coordinating operations. When a disaster happens, every second counts and beginning the recovery process as quickly as possible is vital for the residents, as well as the local economy.

While electric power was still available in areas on San Andrés that were not severely damaged by the hurricane, the installation of infrastructure in Providencia required the use of solar panels and battery storage to power the terminals and Wi-Fi. Despite the hurricane taking place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation was a success with safety protocols followed to protect employees.

Thanks to the role of satellite technology, connectivity was provided to Providencia and San Andrés in record time and provided a greater capacity. This enabled the island communities to reactivate their economy, communicate with their family members and connect to the world. In times of crisis, staying in touch with distant loved ones is important, but not always possible without the right technology in place.

Hurricane Iota was the 13th named storm and the sixth major hurricane in the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. Overall, in 2020 there were 980 events which caused economic losses, compared to 860 events in 2019. As more intense weather events occur, with bigger populations in their path, the quick restoration of connectivity will play a critical role in protecting communities and helping them on the road to recovery.

Restoring communications quickly with satellite

The pressure is on governments to be as prepared as possible for the effects of major natural events. By planning ahead and putting technology solutions in place, fast, efficient connectivity will be available to help drive recovery efforts. In areas where all other networks are not serviceable due to a disaster, satellite is the ideal solution to do this. It can ensure communication networks are back up and running quickly, from basic phone services to the text, email, images and video options provided by the internet. As more low-earth orbit (LEOs) and high-throughput satellites continue to come online, satellite communication is set to become faster and even more reliable. Coupled with the fact that natural disasters are rising, satellite should be at the forefront of governments’ minds.

LEO satellites allow for areas which are far from the reach of terrestrial networks, such as islands and rural communities, to enjoy the same level of internet connectivity as if they were in a busy city center. This is especially critical for mission critical connectivity following a natural disaster, as time is of the essence and LEOs allow for applications that require a real-time connection to function.

Once in place, satellite solutions provide a service of connectivity that is invaluable. Disaster response teams need to establish short-term communications as soon as possible, to allow them to stay connected throughout every stage of the response efforts. Satellite enables communication networks that are quick and easy-to-deploy, and facilitate voice, video, Internet of Things and telemedicine solutions. Handheld devices offer a reliable way for teams to communicate when mobile towers are down, while antenna systems can create Wi-Fi hotspots and private networks. Real-time mapping and surveillance technology is also available with the support of a satellite solution.

Reducing the economic impact

Satellite not only plays a vital role in providing connectivity to governments, aid workers and local people severely impacted by a disaster, but it can also ensure that businesses can continue operating. When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2015, it brought manufacturing to a halt at nearly 50 plants operated by the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. This had a huge impact for Puerto Rico, as pharmaceuticals accounted for 76 percent of the island’s exports. For the companies affected, it was a warning sign that extreme weather events could have a huge impact to their businesses, and by being as prepared as possible, the risks could be reduced.

To limit the impact of a natural disaster, a leading pharmaceutical company implemented satellite technology it could deploy in future natural disasters. The company wanted a solution which would provide disaster preparedness without any ongoing costs. The solution they selected was an auto-deploy satellite terminal capable of supporting a service of up to 100 Mbps. This was pre-positioned at the company’s facility. The terminal can unstow the antenna, align it with a designated satellite and start the service at the push of a button. The satellite connection will then downlink at a teleport and connect with the global carrier providing the company’s secure terrestrial network. With this in place, the pharmaceutical company are as prepared as possible and have a solution in place that ensures connectivity can be back up and running after a natural disaster.

Businesses should look at a satellite solution that can be deployed if and when disasters occur. With a solution that provides disaster preparedness without any ongoing costs, companies can ensure they are in the best position possible to continue operations.

Preparedness is key to a fast recovery

As natural disasters show no signs of reducing in frequency, the best method of defence is preparedness. In 2020, the 2005 record for tropical storms was surpassed, while hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and typhoons wreaked havoc on countries, regions and innocent people. Governments must ensure there are solutions and protocols in place that will save lives and ensure recovery efforts can begin as quickly and successfully as possible. Whilst it is difficult to predict exactly when disasters happen, being prepared and having solutions in place is vital.

In isolated or hard to reach areas especially, satellite can play a life-saving role. By utilizing satellite technology, safety and efficiency can be increased in the aftermath of a natural disaster and governments and humanitarian organizations can act smart, and quick.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dora Mejia

Dora Mejia leads the sales team and business strategy in Latin America for Speedcast’s various industry verticals, bringing more than 15 years of experience in integrated global communications to her role as vice president of sales and operations. She joined the company in 2016 when Speedcast acquired Newcom International, where she was a founding member and had spent 12 years growing the company into a leading provider of global communications. Prior to joining Newcom, she was responsible for overseeing terrestrial network optimization, product development and engineering for Verestar, a multinational teleport operator. She also has extensive experience in telecommunications consulting, and satellite and IP network implementation through her early years at Carvajal Group and owning her own consulting firm. Mejia holds a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from Universidad del Cauca, and an MBA from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia.

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